The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The People’s Democracies

Jan 21, 1976

A whole series of states in Central Europe have economic and social structures which are quite similar to that of the Soviet Union and their regimes are closely dependent on the Russian bureaucracy.

Despite the formal similarities between the states of the People’s Democracies and the Soviet state, their class nature is different. And it is nonsense to characterize the People’s Democracies as workers’ states, even as “degenerated” or “deformed”ones.

The term “workers’ state” is not an abstraction. It is the state power established by a proletarian revolution. Such a state, in concrete conditions, can take on varying concrete forms. It can even degenerate and give birth to a parasitic caste, as was shown by the example of Soviet Russia. But it cannot rise from nothing.

No state among the People’s Democracies was established through a proletarian revolution. The fact that the Russian army played the role of a midwife in the birth of these states changes nothing.

These states were created after World War II in order to fill the void left behind by the German collapse. They were born under the auspices and with the protection of the counter-revolutionary “Holy Alliance,” the Russian bureaucracy and Anglo-American imperialism. In some instances, these states were formed from what was left of the pre-war state apparatuses; and, in all cases, they depended on the national bourgeoisie. These states were always repressive toward the working class. They were and they remain bourgeois states.

The break between the USSR and the Anglo-American powers led the Kremlin to set up a series of protective buffer states in Eastern Europe. This has meant an ever-stronger hold and a more solid control by the Soviet bureaucracy over the countries in its sphere of influence.

If the bureaucracy had had the ability and the desire to increase this control by totally integrating these countries into the Soviet Union, the question of the social nature of the People’s Democracies would not be raised at all today. But the USSR did not annihilate their states and replace them by the Soviet Union’s own state machinery as was the case in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Nonetheless, drastic economic and political measures were taken by the Russian bureaucracy in order to counter-balance the powerful attraction of the capitalist West and to insure the bureaucracy’s hegemony. These measures have left profound traces in these states. In certain respects, it is justified to call them “deformed bourgeois states.” Because of the Russian influence, the People’s Democracies have many unique features when compared to other underdeveloped countries.

On the economic level, during the war and even before, the Germans generally dominated industry. Their subsequent collapse and departure necessitated nationalization of the essential industries in order that economic regeneration could begin. The nationalizations undertaken, and, mostly accomplished, were by governments still not entirely controlled by the Kremlin.

The completion of these nationalizations and their corollary, the planned economies, the almost total break with the West’s market, and the establishment of a monopoly on foreign trade were defensive measures taken by the Russian bureaucracy to counteract the West’s economic influence inside the buffer states. These defensive measures were made easier because the bureaucracy did not have to crush or expropriate a strong bourgeoisie in any of these economically backward countries. During the Cold War, the Soviet bureaucracy could not let the close ties between the bourgeois nations and imperialism remain intact.

On the political level, the emergence of dictatorships in these countries was a result of their underdevelopment and social contradictions. Russian control gave these dictatorships a singular aspect. That is, the selection of people at the head of the dictatorships was either made in or approved by Moscow.

Russian control led to the deformations of these states but this did not change their social nature. These deformations are not the criteria for socialism.

It is no accident that certain forces tend to weaken the subjugation of these states to the Kremlin. Such forces arise from the social nature of these states. The Eastern European states try to free themselves of a cumbersome protector and to reestablish ties with the West.

This tendency, which was crushed and stifled by the terror exerted by the Russian state in the early 1950s, has increased since then, for two reasons:

First, the ruling sections, already dislocated and weakened in 1945, were decimated by Soviet rule when the Cold War began. But since then, the ruling sections have become stronger. Despite the Russian bureaucracy’s management, despite the Russian bureaucracy’s plunder, these countries have undergone economic development. The growth of wealth profited most of all the ruling layers of society, upstarts, and all sorts of profiteers. The newly-rich increased, became stronger, and, to a certain extent, consolidated their gains. They formed the national social base of the states in the People’s Democracies.

Second, Stalin’s death and the crisis of leadership in the USSR that followed, weakened the Soviet Union’s hold. The attempt to gain a certain independence from Moscow increased as the existing regimes consolidated their own national social base. When the Soviet bureaucracy’s control was relaxed, the states emerged with a slight gain in independence.

The evolution of the People’s Democracies during the last 20 years took place amid the constant and often violent interaction of three forces: the Russian bureaucracy, the supporters of the national states, and the proletariat. Sometimes their clashes of interest were conscious, sometimes not.

The Russian bureaucracy had to depend on the ruling layers of the national states to try to prevent the outburst of any independent proletarian movement. The bureaucracy also had to try to prevent these national states from escaping from its orbit.

The supporters of the national states were trying to escape Russian domination. But these nationalists also needed the Soviet Union’s support against the proletariat when the workers were no longer satisfied to play a subordinate role in the struggles between their states and the Kremlin.

In the absence of a sizeable revolutionary party, the proletariat was not able to fight under its own banner with a clear consciousness of its objectives. The proletariat’s interests were opposed to both the Russian bureaucracy and to the supporters of the nationalist states.

This difference in interests was shown clearly during the Hungarian insurrections of 1956. The supporters of the national state apparatus were only partially successful in keeping the workers from gaining their demands. The Hungarian proletariat was not able to break politically with the Nagy government. But by creating their own class organizations, the counsels and workers’ militias, the proletariat had the possibility to break completely with the supporters of the national state apparatus.

The supporters of the national state apparatus are caught between two forces: their own proletariat and the Russian bureaucracy. Threatened by the proletariat, they seek the protection of the Russian bureaucracy. At other times, the supporters of the state apparatus do leave the side of their protectors when the proletariat’s demands seem less pressing. Sometimes supporters of the state apparatus decide they can handle many difficulties on their own.

Therein lies the source of their political vacillation. These vacillations take place around a moving center. Western imperialism exercises a strong pull on all of these regimes. Throughout the ups and downs of their changing relationships with the bureaucracy and the masses in their countries, the basic trend is toward the West. The problem for the Russian bureaucracy is to decide to intervene militarily, as it did in Czechoslovakia, or to grant these countries a growing amount of independence.

In the People’s Democracies there is a three-way struggle among three distinct social forces. The program of a revolutionary socialist comes from an understanding of this situation.

The main obstacle to any revolutionary workers’ movement in the People’s Democracies remains the Russian bureaucracy. Since World War II, the bureaucracy has been the principal counter-revolutionary force in this part of the world.

Thus an essential demand is the immediate withdrawal of the Russian army. Revolutionaries cannot justify, under any circumstances, the direct or indirect intervention of the Russian army usually done in the name of safeguarding “socialist conquests.” The demand for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops is neither inherently socialist nor revolutionary. And recognizing this demand does not transform anyone into an ally of the proletariat. We must fight those who try to divert the proletariat into the camp supporting the national state machinery, under the banner of some nationalist anti-Russian unity. Whatever their pronouncements, the Gomulkas, the Nagys, the Dubceks and their cronies must be viewed as the mortal enemies of the revolutionary proletariat. When faced with a choice, these national leaders still prefer Russian bureaucratic domination within their country to the mobilization of the proletariat as an independent force with its own demands.

The struggle for socialist revolution in the People’s Democracies simultaneously represents the struggle against Russian bureaucracy and the struggle against bourgeois nationalism.

The creation of a revolutionary party constitutes the essential task of every revolutionary. It is also an essential task of a revolutionary International, even one that is in the process of being built. For without a revolutionary party to serve as the conscious instrument of this fight, the workers’ struggle against Russian bureaucratic dictatorship and against national oppression will inevitably fall under the control of nationalist demagogues.

The relatively quiet political trials in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc., may mean that there are people, undercurrents, and perhaps incipient organizations that reject the specious choice posed: bureaucracy or bourgeoisie. Instead, they reaffirm their belief in revolutionary socialism. The indispensable task is to establish ties with these dissident elements and to bring them over to the revolutionary Marxist program. Upon such efforts the International will be built.